On 信

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

The character 信 – xin, typically translated as trust – brings together the character for ‘man’ on the left and the character for ‘language’ on the right. A superficial reading would identify the following simple metaphor, that a trustworthy person it true to their word – they are reliable, they tell the truth, and there is consistency between their actions and the promises they make. But as I considered the character further, 信 started reminding me of the first virtue that I examined in this Confucian cycle, 仁. Ren is the virtue that prevails in a relationship between two people – benevolence as a basis for all positive human interaction. Could 信, then, connecting man and language, represent the other end of the spectrum, the virtue that binds a large group of people together through shared language and stories?

Looking through the Analects, I noted how xin was repeatedly mentioned in relation to friendship. Articulating a definition of the noble man, Confucius says “He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber.” [1:8] (主忠信。无友不如己者。). This statement is repeated almost word for word at [9:25]: “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. ” (主忠信。毋友不如己者。) One of the things that qualifies a person as ‘learned’ (学) is to “be honest in speech when dealing with your friends” [1:7] (与朋友交、言而有信。). When the Master is asked about his aspirations, again, trust and friendship are mentioned: “I would like to give comfort to the aged, trust to my friends and nurturance to the young.” (5:26) (老者安之、朋友信之、少者怀之。). Earlier in the text, at [1:4], as part of an introspective series of questions, we can read the following: “In my interactions with friends, have I been untrustworthy?” (与朋友交而不信乎。) – for this would be the biggest failure in friendship.

I was brought back to my early readings of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where friendship is defined as a primary virtue – the source of our deepest happiness – and a cornerstone of political life. Indeed, Xin must prevail not only between friends, but also  between rulers and the ruled. When asked what a government needs to succeed, Confucius replies: “Enough food, enough weapons and the confidence of the people.” [12:7] (足食、足兵、民信之矣。) When asked which of those three is most important, Confucius identifies trust, because: “ From ancient times, death has come to all men, but a people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.” [12:7] (民无信不立。)

Trust is, indeed, what allows a ruler to guide the action of the people: “After the ruler has the trust of the people, they will toil for him. If he doesn’t have their trust, they will regard him as oppressive. Only after gaining his trust will they criticize him openly. If he doesn’t trust them, he will take their criticism as backstabbing. ” [19:10] (君子信而后劳其民。未信、则以为厉己也。信而后谏。未信、则以为谤己也。) We know that there is a correlation between the level of trust that prevails in a country and its wealth. Indeed, this is not surprising: if I operate in a high trust environment, then I will build teams and coordinate projects on the basis of talent and motivation. But if trust is lacking, I will work only with people that I already know, and whose behaviour is controlled through a dense network of mutual connections, mafia style.I ndeed, xin is the hallmark of a person’s usefulness: : “If a person lacks trustworthiness, I don’t know what s/he can be good for. When a pin is missing from the yoke-bar of a large wagon, or from the collar-bar of a small wagon, how can it go?” [2:22] (人而无信、不知其可也。大车无輗、小车无軏 , 其何以行之哉)  This primacy given to trust is universal. “If your speech is sincere and honest, and your way of carrying yourself is earnest and reverent, such behaviour will work even if you live among the Southern and Northern barbarians. But if your speech is insincere and dishonest and your way of carrying yourself is neither earnest nor reverent, then even if you live in your hometown, you will have problems.” [15:6[] (言忠信、行笃敬、虽蛮貊之邦行矣。言不忠信、行不笃敬、虽州里行乎哉。立、则见其参于前也。在舆、则见期倚于衡也。)

When I considered a potential practice to better understand this virtue, I chose to write down what expectations I had of my friends, my government, and the people leading various projects I am involved in. The intention was, after identifying those expectations, to figure where they stemmed from, whether explicit promises had been made, or what assumptions I made as to their expected future behaviour.  With surprise, I noticed a recurring incongruence: there is a gap between what I wish for, and what I expect. In all cases, my expectations were inconsistently both high and low. I hope for the greatest levels of support, transparency, reliability – yet anticipate situations where friends, governments and leaders fail on all fronts. Am I setting myself up for constant disappointment on the basis of past negative experience, doubts about my own trustworthiness, or the side effects of working with global catastrophic risks?

A discussion with Patrick yielded a precious insight. The conversation was going sideways, exploring an inherent tension in the coaching practice. On the one hand, a coach must create a safe space where ‘what is’ for the client is accepted with no judgement – as a therapist; on the other hand, a coach must help their client identify patterns of possibility inherent in their situation, and help them go through personal transformation, leaving ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what may be’. I realised how strongly the second appealed to me, and how thinking about that aspect of my own practice resonated with a number of elements in my mental pantheon: Shiva, god of creative destruction; the family myth of a grandfather in the French resistance during the Second World War; my ongoing fascination for power as the basis for transformation.

Could it be, then, I thought, that when considering friends, government and organisations, trust is about focusing not on ‘what is’, but ‘what may be’. Patterns emerge, hinting at future potential – which I see, giving me those high hopes – but I remain aware that what I perceive is not ‘what is real’, only ‘what could be’ – and that many negative ‘could be’s’ are latent in any situation, and need to be accepted from the start. This – I thought – may very well constitute the essence of trust: not a promise made and kept, but the willingness to keep space open for an uncertain future.

Trust, then, is not about firmly constructing an island of reliability within the chaos of a threatening world, but rather, the deliberate opening of a collective space that welcomes and embraces transformation. Where trust prevails, it becomes possible for individuals not only to identify the many potential futures latent in the present, but also, to weigh in on the situation and, hopefully, with help from their friends, bring about one of those futures. Trust offers an alternative to determinism and fatalism: when trust exists, the future is no longer simply conditioned by the past in a linear manner. Trust is not blind continuity, but narrative potential imagined in conversations with friends and emerging from coordinated action, whereby a group of people establish a joint reading of their collective past that leads towards their chosen collective future. Trust, understood in that manner, is then the political virtue par excellence, grown through friendship, extending across teams and governments – and the cornerstone of human freedom.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

Justice – Week 5


This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence and temperance, I now reflect on justice – or the capacity to give everybody their right due. 

This week, I reflected on the connection between individuals and collectives, stimulated by two books, ‘La composition des mondes’ by anthropologist Philippe Descola, and ‘L’Enrichissement’, by sociologists Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre.

Justice must ensure that everybody receive their due. The primary question therefore must be, who is everybody? This is particularly relevant in the case of ecological justice, where the relationship between humans and non-humans is at stake. From the perspective of justice, if a natural element is endangered – a lake or an animal species – they could be considered as external objects that only matter inasmuch as their existence affects the well-being of various humans. Or, they could be considered as part of a structured collective, alongside other elements of the natural ecosystem, including humans. Justice, then, demands that their interest be taken into consideration, as much as that of individual humans.

At the basis of any reflection on justice is the question of distributing public wealth to members of the community fairly. The technical modalities of collective decision are therefore a crucial issue. Those who master rhetorical codes and understand procedures are at an advantage, and able to guide collective decision to their benefit. We should therefore always ask ourselves, to what extent does a certain protocol favour justice, or strength?

Does justice require that we follow formal established rules, or more general principles?  If I was to develop a personal relationship with an Uber driver and got them to drive me somewhere, without going through the system, would I be at fault? On the one hand, if I by-pass the system, I would replace an exploitative structure with direct human interaction; on the other, I would endanger a system offering stability to the social order. In a multicultural environment, these questions are difficult, as norms of behaviour in relation to the law vary.

The current state of things is justified by narratives anchored in the past: justice and history therefore go together. Further still, the structures giving value to things are themselves historically located. Modern industrial society produces large numbers of interchangeable specimens based on the same prototype, whose ownership is protected by law. This is a product of the European 19th century. Today’s discussions on copyright and piracy should be considered in this light: what they question is not an eternal right, but a certain historical construction.

Economic systems, and the way that various types of things are valued and priced, determine in turn the comparative advantage of those who control various types of things. The position we take in those economic systems will in turn determine our interest in advocating for change or preserving a certain state of things. Deliberately choosing to place ourselves in a position where we serve interests in contradiction with the common good is a question of justice. Beware, therefore, the risk of finding ourselves in a situation that seriously restricts our capacity for justice.

Justice regulates the mutual relationship between people as part of a collective. But who decides on our capacity to be part of that collective? When belonging requires physical access, who makes decisions on our capacity to remain part of a certain group, and what form of justice applies?


On landscapes and memories

The first time I took a train down from Beijing to Shanghai, one particular spot triggered a strong emotional reaction. It’s a range of mid-sized mountains, dragged at the top, some white stone exposed, dark pine or cypress trees dotting the flanks, among lower, yellower, shorter bushes. I have since gone through this pass a number of times. It stretches from Jinan to Tai’an, the backbone of China Eastern mountaing range. I have since realised why that emotional reaction. It looks incredibly similar to the mountains of Provence, the Cevennes north of Nimes, where my grand father stems from; the Alpilles, by the Rhone river, marking entrance to the Mediterranean rim; the Southern Alps, separating France and Italy; the Appennine, which I crossed many times going from florence to Bologna.

I Often speak of the parallel between China and the Mediterranean. Two sophisticated, old civilisations, both convinced of standing at the centre of the earth. Joyful, warm people. Centres of literary cultures. Elaborate merchant cultures. An eye for beauty. This landscape, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, is the physical counterpart of this more diffuse sense of alignment. And whenever I pass by, watching the mountains from the train window, I sense the depth of my connection to China. 

I felt it more broadly, during this trip, in the Hutongs of Beijing, where old people pull out chairs into the street at night and spend time enjoying the fresh air, greeting neighbours as they pass by, gossiping, playing cards, like my grand parents used to do when I was a kid. It brings back the warm, quasi-magical world of my holidays in provence, where life was happier, warmer, more social. Where you could stand outside the door, where people knew who you were, and the nights smelled of jasmine flower. This I fiound on the streets of Beijing. And as I head south to more metropolitan Shanghai, I feel as if I’m getting back to working life, leaving holidays, warmth and family behind.

On sitting and standing

Why have we chosen the sitting position as a modern default?

Last night, I went on a long walk to the beach, and today, I decided I would stand to work. And so I did, at home first, while I focused on tw0 simple tasks: learning how to use Endnote, and sorting old folders of research documents. I put my laptop on a fat book, the book on a stool, the stool on a table, and I stood in front of this improvised platform all morning, happily typing. Result: no sore shoulders, and a nice feeling in my stomach that I got a wee bit more toned.

The slogan of 2014 was ‘sitting is the new smoking’. It might echo still in other ears than mine. But as public places used to favour smokers over non-smokers, our social environment is entirely designed for sitters.

We may hold a fake belief that special artifacts are required for sitting, chairs, couches, or stools, while we can stand on our own two feet. Not so. I sit on the floor whenever I can. And if you stand and read, eat, or type, you want a space to lean the book, plate, or laptop. But not often will we find such standing set-ups, and so, defaulting into the shape that our environment proposes, we sit.

After I finished my morning work-from-home, I headed to my second office, in the QV food court. The place has been recently redone, and has very comfortable tables and chairs where you can sit for a whole afternoon without any cover charge. But there are only three tall tables where you could stand and rest a laptop, hidden under the main escalators, opposite the BreadTop bakery.

One of the tables was free. I pushed aside the white metal-mesh stool, set my computer on it, and stood for a couple of hours, drafting the outline of my thesis. Then I headed back one, and went on a long walk to North Fitzroy. And as I did, I spoke with my partner about replacing a large, red armchair in our living room with a standing station. It would certainly change my daily routines, inviting me to stand for breakfast, maybe dinner, or when friends come over.

But even as I can perfectly visualise the piece of furniture that I would need, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it at a friend’s place, I have no clue where I could buy it, or what its name would be. So much we made sitting our default posture.


How Translation can help you learn Chinese

So, I made it to the pages of Hacking Chinese, talking about the benefits of translation Chinese-English for language learning.

Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?

This was the introduction to my post – you can read the full piece here

Music I love

This is just a whimsical little post, sharing music that I love.

Celia Cruz, El Sabroso son Cubano

The Supremes, Where did our love go

Barbara, Ma plus belle histoire d’amour c’est vous

Chris Garneau, Hands on the Radio

Cheer Chen, 魚

στελιος καζαντσιδις, κουρασμενο παλικαρι

Chet Baker, I fall in love too easily

Getz & Gilberto, Desfinado

Radiohead, No Surprises

Madredeus, As Brumas do Futuro